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How to handle a question and answer (Q & A) session well
15 tips, many of which, I learned the hard way.
Let’s set the scene.
You're at the end of your prepared presentation and now it's time take questions.
And you know this can be the make-or-break segment!
You will have witnessed a Q & A session go sideways with alarming speed and the speaker struggling to regain control after mishandling either the question, the person who asked it, or both. (Mayhem. Decidedly unpleasant.)
You will have also witnessed questions answered fittingly. (Satisfyingly good.)
To make sure your Question & Answer (Q & A) session goes well, here's 15 handy tips: the sort I wished I had years ago.
1. Anticipate what you might get asked and prepare
What questions might you get? Go through your presentation, thinking about it from the point of view of your audience. What are they likely to want to know more about? What concerns will they have?
List and have considered, ready and rehearsed answers for these.*
If it’s a critical presentation, run both the questions you think you could be asked and the answers you intend to give, by your colleagues and ask for their feedback. This is especially useful if you anticipate you’re going to get difficult or controversial questions. Your prior practice will help you keep calm and centered when you respond on the day.
*Sometimes the audience will have been asked to submit their questions, along with their name and other pertinent details, (company, position or role), for the Q & A session ahead of the presentation. This gives you time to thoroughly think through and prepare your answer.
It also enables you to see patterns. What are the principal concerns? What do people want to know more about? Multiple questions on the same subject let you know where you need to start. Prioritize your time to ensure you address the main concerns the majority of your audience has.
“Ten of you, including John Smyth (Selkirks), May Brown (Brams and House), Simon Bray (Molly’s Pride), Stephanie Kitt (Sew What) and Ian Crump (White Noise) all want to know want to what ultimately happens with remaindered lines.”
Be sure to let people know that if their question hasn’t been answered, it’s not because it’s unanswerable. It’s because there isn’t enough time to deal with everyone’s questions. The ‘most frequently asked’ are given priority. If, at the end of the session, people still want their question answered have them catch up with you afterwards. (See No.15 for more.)
2. Set up the Q & A at the start
If the questions for the Q & A session have not been already collected and sorted, announce at the beginning of your presentation that there will be time for questions afterwards. This usually stops people from interrupting while you are presenting. If a person insists, remind them politely, that you’ll make time for them later, and to please hold their question until then.
3. State the time allowance and stick to it
Specify the time allocation for Questions and Answers as part of your introduction.
“It’s a fascinating topic, one that’s bound to generate a whole lot of questions. You’ll have an opportunity to ask them after the presentation. We’ve got 15 minutes set aside for a Q & A session.”
If you are running to an agenda which includes other presentations after yours, you’ll need to stick to it to avoid eating into other people’s allocated time. That creates knock-on difficulties for the next presenters as well as the event organizer, which in turn generates understandable irritation. It’s not ideal to have your presentation time shortened or rescheduled because someone else allowed time to run away on them.
4. Get people to write their questions down
If your presentation is lengthy and the content complex, as part of the introductory set up hand out slips of paper for people to note their questions down as they occur. The reason for that is they may forget important elements if they have to wait too long before they can ask them.
If appropriate, ask each questioner to stand, say their name and place of work (club or interest group they represent), before they ask their question. That almost always guarantees that you only get serious questions, and that the audience clearly hears what is being asked.
5. A rule of three for answering questions
Listen to the question, all the way through. Resist the urge to go straight into an answer before the speaker has finished asking it.
If you don't understand the question, ask for clarification.
Thank the asker for their question. Then repeat it back in your own words and ask for confirmation that you got it right.
Observing the rule of three does three excellent things.
It allows the audience to hear the question clearly.
It gives you a little bit of time to start getting your answer together - to begin thinking it through.
It gives the asker a chance to correct you if you have misinterpreted what they were asking.
Once you’ve clarified the question, pause before beginning your answer. Silently and slowly count to four while taking a deep breath. Use the pause to structure how you will answer.
6. Beware of traps and tricks
Look as well as listen carefully.
Some questions are intended to be tricky and are traps for the naive and unwary. These could be, depending on the context, loaded or leading questions.
This question, asked by a rival candidate at a rally, is loaded.
“Have you stopped peddling political propaganda?”
And this question, asked by an employee at a company change-of-direction meeting, is leading.
“How soon can we expect layoffs?”
Both questions carry negative implications. They’re a deliberate slur on the presenter or the company they represent. The principal intention behind them is to provoke, and to hook the speaker into giving an ill-considered answer before they’ve had to time to think clearly.
Take the heat out of loaded or leading questions. Side-step or deflect them by asking the speaker to re-frame their question minus the implication. If they can't or won't, pass on to another question.
Or, if you think answering the question will be useful for the audience, reframe it yourself, before replying.
For example, the first question could be reframed as:
“Thank you for your question. I appreciate and share your concerns about the proliferation of political propaganda. I’m sure neither of us would want to deliberately mislead the people we have vowed to serve. Therefore, your question really is, what is our campaign based on? Is it fact or fiction? Truth or lies?”
And the second question, could be re-worded as:
“Thank you for your question. Under the circumstances, asking about layoffs is entirely understandable. Whether or not, you’re right to expect them is a moot point. There will be changes. That’s inevitable. However, we’re still in the process of reviewing possible options. Unfortunately, I can’t give a definite answer at this point. We’ll let everyone know as soon as we can.”
7. What to say when you don’t have an answer
If a question is genuine and you don't have the answer, say so. Please don’t fluff about fudging a response or make excuses. There is nothing positive to be gained by either.
If you are part of a team presentation, perhaps someone else can answer it. Hand it over if they can.
“Aaah, yes. Thank you. You want to know whether green widgets are superior to yellow ones. A good question and one that’s perfect for my colleague Kate Black. Unlike me, she’s spent many years researching them. Over to you, Kate.”
If you are solo, thank the person for their question. Ask them to give you their name and contact details at the end of the Q & A session and assure them you’ll get back to them with an answer inside whatever time frame is reasonable to collect and collate the information they want.
There may be other people in the audience who would like the answer too. Ask. Collect their contact details as well. Include them when you send the response.
8. Redirecting, reshaping the question or angle, before responding
This can be useful when you want to give a bigger picture or establish context - something the original question didn't allow for.
“You’ve asked about using the Defense Force to clear the streets. Let’s consider the precedents for that: the 1951 Waterfront Dispute, Bastion Point, 1978, and the anti-Springbok rugby tour protest in 1981. What have they taught us?”*
(*The references are to the occupation by anti-mandate and anti-vaccine protesters of the NZ parliament grounds in 2022.)
9. How to give a topic you’ve been asked to speak on scope
This establishes what you're prepared to cover in your response.
“Thanks. That’s a great question. I am happy to share what has happened since I joined the organization in 2020.”
“Thanks, that’s a great, and very big question. I don’t have time right now to cover all aspects of it. So, here’s the first part. If anybody would like me to follow up with the second and third, please see me later and we’ll make a time.”
10. Dealing with off topic questions
If the question appears to be completely off topic. Listen, then say so, politely.
"Thank you. I don’t immediately see the connection. However, if you’d like to tell me more to help me understand how it’s related, let’s catch up afterwards."
"Thank you. While that’s an interesting question, it's also another issue and one that’s outside the scope of this discussion. We’ll pass on that for now."
11. Checking your answer is satisfactory
Once you have answered a question, check in with the person who asked it to get their feedback before moving on to the next one.
"Have I/we covered what you wanted to know?"
If you get a ‘yes’, move on.
If you get a ‘no’, and the question is important, ask the audience as a whole.
For example: “Who else would like me to go over that again? Nod if you do!”
If you have lots of people wanting more, rephrase your answer. If you don’t, make an offer to continue the conversation with the person who asked the question later.
12. When one person dominates
If you have one person dominating the discussion thank them for their contribution and then ask if anyone else would like to speak because it’s important to hear as many different questions and perspectives as possible in the limited time that’s available to everyone.
13. When a question is repeated
If a question has already been covered, politely say so.
“Thanks. That’s a great question, and one we’ve already covered. We’re short on time so I’ll let someone else give you the information and take another question.”
Don't waste the audience's time recapping.
14. Close on time
Lastly, keep an eye on the clock. When you've only got space for one more quick question, say so. When the time is up, close the session off. Thank the contributors, explain what you want people who have questions they didn’t get to ask to do, (see the note below), and conclude.
15. Collect the unasked questions
And very lastly, there may be people who had questions they were eager to ask but were unable to because there was not enough time. Either ask them to write their question and their contact details on a piece of paper and give it to you or give them your email address to send their query to.
If a submitted question (one sent in ahead of the presentation) is unanswered, check to see if the person who asked it, still wants a response. If they do, arrange for that to happen in a timely way.
That’s it, until next time. If you’ve got tips to offer or comments you want to make on handling Q & As, do let us have them!
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